01 July 2007

Review: Ratatouille

Genre: Drama (Animated)

Pixar's latest film, needless to say, I think, keeps up their now substantial tradition of beautiful 3-D computer animation. A wonderful display of what it and its members can do, Ratatouille however and unfortunately is not also ripe for other celebration and praise. Its beautiful sets, refined lines, and smooth characters are sadly hampered first and foremost by a weak sense of cinematography; awkward framings, disproportionate emphases, and shots with a tendency to get too close are splotched intermittently (and with no indication of pointed style) between breathtaking scenics that in consideration of the whole seem mere strokes of luck. While cinematography has never been a particularly strong suit of theirs, it has to my present recollection never before suffered such a handicapping masque on their work as it does in this, their latest piece.
The film also suffers from a jerkily structured screenplay, that most egregiously casts in a love story and a - borrowing video-game language - mid-stage villain to fill in its blanks. A greater confidence in its own ideas and choice of story would have probably saved the writers at Pixar a lot of that filling in and would have bolstered what I perceived to be the main heart of the story to be able to stand on its own, much in the way the heart of Finding Nemo did. Specifically for a moment addressing the villainy concern: it is of course important to have in a film, especially in one about an underdog or unlikely hero of sorts, to have a definite and present villain, or counter or antagonist, throughout, because - as in all art and argument - the best way to elucidate one's point is by chiaroscuro (i. e., illuminating it by arguing down the opposing perspective). I was extremely excited at the film's opening, to discover the quick and definite establishment of such a character in the marvellously executed Anton Ego, voiced by the incomparable Peter O'Toole. (It was this, O'Toole's character, whose being and scenes I enjoyed most out of everything in this film.) Yet, as the film progressed, Ego's plotline became subdued and almost forgotten due to the establishment of a new opposing force in the wretchedly obnoxious, almost slapstick head chef of Gusteau's. This duplicity in villiany, not only obscured the focus and heart of the film as an art piece and argument, but also generally destabilized and discredited the entire film from its proposed identity as an art piece, by its secondary villain's cheap-entertainment, slapstick nature. Now, admittedly an animated film, traditionally within the recent past marketed exclusively toward children, must in good business sense appeal to children and also admittedly slapstick, physical comedy is a good way to do so. I'll even go so far as to say that such comedy can be an excellent relief in good film from the mullings of the central drama. However, its use, like that of some spices, must be controlled, rarified, appropriated to the right degrees, lest it run away possibly literally with the dignity and respectability of the film. Pixar, I thought, understood this, as again I allude to Finding Nemo, but in Ratatouille they at Pixar seem to have forgotten, if they ever did understand, as such a large portion of the film is devoted solely to such haphazard tries at comedy that it undercut the film's aim (and also lost its ability to be funny in that way). Though children may laugh at it all, is that jejune laughter truly Pixar's ultimate aim? I shudder to think so, preferring instead to believe that Pixar aims at producing focused art that indeed can and perhaps even should be fun and funny but that remains sharp all the same. Blurry writing can never suffice.
Along similar lines, the attempts there were visible, of the intent to establish the film as art and to break out of the flat, static, stagnant medium of film, were dull fizzles when they should have been radiant explosions. The sequences of this nature that are the most outstanding were those in which Remi tries to explain taste and the audience is shown a black null space on top of which colorful, dancing illustrations of taste are animated. These sequences showed a significant lack of artistry, as they were too firmly grounded in the physical of both the reality of the film and the reality general. Planting an oafish Emile in front of those illustrations is far too tethering and restrictive, to allow anything of interest or beauty to truly manifest itself. The tastes are supposed to be revelatory experiences, gifted to characters who had never known or even suspected of them before. Why does Pixar fall so short in creativity by trying so inadequately and literally to express such revelations to its audience? A sequence that blended such dancing colors with perhaps metamorphoses of various foods, perhaps like the sequence in which Remi fixes the soup by throwing in all the ingredients (which is about the farthest extent to which the film breaks out of itself), probably would have communicated/expressed their goal a lot better.
Which brings me to a great point I had about film in general: the power, beauty, and quality of a film is determined primarily, as film is a visual medium, by how well the film-makers and contributors can construct an argument that is solely visual, not dialoguical or in any way audial, in their film product. (That is why voice-over narration is so often frowned upon in serious film-making.) Ratatouille, a film that could have made extensive usage of the disjunct in communication of rats from humans, instead is strongly dialogue-based, practically each new turn of the story negotiated across to the audience by direct verbal cues, a hugely unfortunate crutch of film-making.
The film finally lacks a strong score, that despite the visuals' lacking would have beefed up the work to a respectable level. Mr. Giacchino's score is fatuous and seemingly redundant of his Incredibles work, only with Parisiennes accordions tossed into the mix. A stronger, more original work could have helped sequences like the ones on taste break out into moments of greatness.
All in all, though, Ratatouille isn't an abysmal piece of work from the Pixar studios. Though not revelatory, original, dynamic, or capable in many aspects, it's still decent theater fare, especially considering its current competition. So, go see it, I guess, if only to increase your admiration for the fantastic Mr. O'Toole.

Grade: C

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